Prosecutors have for the first time brought a radical Islamist to the International Criminal Court, accusing him of destroying ancient religious monuments in 2012 when his extremist group overran Timbuktu in northern Mali. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a citizen of Mali, was handed over to the court last weekend and made his first appearance on Wednesday before an international judge. The prosecution described Mr. Mahdi as a “zealous member” of Ansar Dine, an Islamist extremist group linked to Al Qaeda. It said he played a “predominant and active role” in Timbuktu as the head of a self-appointed morality squad, working in conjunction with a new Islamist court. In that role, the prosecution said, he committed war crimes by directing attacks against 10 religious buildings, including widely revered shrines to Islamic thinkers and an ancient mosque. The group deemed much of the culture of Timbuktu, a medieval center of Islamic learning, as idolatrous and in need of cleansing. But on Wednesday, Mr. Mahdi, standing behind his court-appointed lawyers, said he was a 40-year-old teachers’ college graduate and civil servant. The case is opening as the question of prosecuting cultural destruction has been pushed to the forefront by attacks on cultural and religious sites in Iraq and Syria. The court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has condemned the widespread destruction of heritage there, but has no jurisdiction in either country.
Last year, Unesco began rebuilding Timbuktu, once a major trading hub and centre of learning, with the Malian government and other international organisations. The €10m (£7.4m) reconstruction project relies heavily on traditional building methods and local cultural knowledge. The mausoleums were constructed to pay homage to deceased saints but were considered blasphemous by the jihadis. About 4,000 ancient manuscripts were lost, stolen or burned during the Islamists’ occupation.
The events in Mali hark back to 2012, when two groups of Islamic radicals overran Timbuktu and other towns in the northern desert. One group was Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, to which prosecutors said Mr. Mahdi belonged. The other, a splinter group, called itself the Movement for Oneness and Jihad. They imposed an extreme form of Sharia law, meting out punishments like stoning and mutilating local Muslims for infractions. The Islamists gained worldwide notoriety as images filtered out showing such punishments, as well as the smashing of religious buildings and the burning of two celebrated libraries holding unique religious and other manuscripts. The Islamists were chased out in 2013 by a French-led military campaign.
Human rights groups and some residents of Timbuktu welcomed Mr. Mahdi’s arrest. But others criticized it. Fatouma Harber, who said Mr. Mahdi had been a student of hers in 2008, declared that he was only a “little fish,” and that others, including his father, who served as an Islamist judge, bore greater responsibility for crimes in Timbuktu. Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer for a group of victims from Timbuktu, said in an interview that they filed suit in March against Mr. Mahdi and 14 others in a Mali court. Ms. Bectarte, who works for a human rights group, the International Federation for Human Rights, said that he had played an important role as “the head of the Islamist police” in Timbuktu, but lamented that the charges made no mention of the rape, torture, abduction and forced marriages of hundreds of women in the city. “It is very hard to see that the court is dealing only with the destruction of buildings, and they are forgotten as victims,” she said. Our picture below shows the Islamic centre and mosque that Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi allegedly ordered the destruction.
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